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ABC News
Matt Garrick

NASA is readying to launch rockets from Arnhem Land – but the journey was years in the making

ELA owns and operates the Arnhem Space Centre near Nhulunbuy.

It was during the throes of the pandemic's peak, mid-2021.

Like everything else in Australia, the nation's space industry had been all but grounded, leaving many blueprints for the future stuck in limbo – or worse.

Of the latter, a fledgling space start-up, which had spent years building on a dream to attract commercial space companies to Australia's far north, was on the cusp of financial collapse.

Their vision of hosting a rocket launchpad in the Northern Territory's Arnhem Land was pulling further and further out of reach: even before coronavirus hit, it had been a dream described by some as far-fetched.

"There was a lot of non-believers to begin with, who said this would never work," Klaus Helms, the chief executive of the Gumatj Aboriginal Corporation in north-east Arnhem Land,  said.

Upcoming launches in Arnhem Land will see the NT get back into the space industry in a big way. (Supplied: NASA)

Now, that "impossible" dream is being realised, with NASA announcing it will shoot three suborbital sounding rockets from the newly constructed Arnhem Space Centre, during June and July this year.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese travelled to Darwin this week to make the announcement himself.

"The fact three rockets collecting scientific information from NASA will be launched from near Nhulunbuy and come back to earth with that data will be a really exciting thing for Australia, and particularly exciting for the Northern Territory," he told a crowd of journalists.

The company behind the plans for the Arnhem Space Centre is Equatorial Launch Australia (ELA), which was founded in 2015 – a start-up with minimal staff, scratching for private investment.

"It was very challenging, and certainly it has been a journey to get to this point," the company's general manager of finance, Russell Shaw, said. 

Mr Shaw says the journey to get this far has been "challenging". (ABC News; Peter Garnish)

As the pandemic wore on, in the middle of 2021, ELA's prospects were looking bleak. Their plans were facing unending delays and finances were dwindling.

But according to Mr Shaw, a change in management and an ensuing push to source new investors saw the company manage to pull itself out of the mire, and steer back towards course.

"Effectively, as a start-up, the company was self-funded, and because of COVID it was difficult to attract some investment," Mr Shaw said.

"But once we got a clear pathway, and with a new management team in place, we were able to attract that capital that we needed to round out the facility."

NASA's commitment to ELA 'a big deal'

Australian National University astrophysicist Dr Brad Tucker said the fact that a space start-up like ELA had managed to lock-in a client as high-profile as NASA was unprecedented.

The Albanese Government's new Federal Industry and Science Minister, Ed Husic, also paid tribute to ELA for pulling a rabbit out of a hat, saying "the ability to make this happen is a big deal".

NASA has been linked to ELA's development of the Arnhem Land launch site for about five years.

During that half decade, one constant that kept the project from falling over, Mr Shaw said, was the sustained support from NASA as ELA worked through its hurdles.

Three rockets will be launched over a period of a month from the Arnhem Space Centre. (ABC News: Jesse Thompson)

"We have had the support of NASA throughout the process, and they've been very faithful and reliable in terms of working with us, to achieve these goals," he said.

"I think we are now set up for success going forwards."

So, what convinced NASA to commit for the long haul?

The conditions on offer undoubtedly played a part – Nhulunbuy's proximity to the equator, its low population, along with ready access to paved and graded roads and a deep-water port.

"It just really goes to show how important this vision is of launch capability in Australia," ANU's Dr Tucker said.

"Everyone said, 'If you build it, they will come'.

Seventy-five NASA personnel will travel to Australia for the launches. (Supplied: ELA)

Land tenure issues 'put to bed'

Finding capital during the global pandemic wasn't the only speed bump for the Arnhem Space Centre.

The spaceport sits on Yolngu-owned land, and, over the years since ELA first aired its hopes to use the site for rocket launches, a level of doubt and distrust had emerged from some corners.

However, ELA's Mr Shaw pledged that past concerns have now been "put to bed" and the company was open to engaging with any clan group or stakeholder who may still have issues over the plans.

"We've had a tremendous amount of engagement with traditional owners and made sure that we've addressed those local concerns," he said.

NASA will be launching three rockets from the Northern Territory later this month. (Supplied: ELA)

Not everyone is completely at ease with the rocket plans — the ABC spoke to one long-term objector, who claims disputes over the site's ownership are still simmering.

But, thanks to the backing of a key Aboriginal clan group, potential challenges are likely to be uphill battles.

The lease for the land sits with the Gumatj Aboriginal Corporation, which represents one of the Gove Peninsula's most powerful clan groups, the Gumatj, who have sub-leased it to ELA.

Gumatj Corporation has backed the project since its inception, including helping facilitate the site's development, and stayed by ELA's side even as the company looked like it was on the brink.

Gumatj CEO Mr Helms said it was "perseverance and a bit of a gamble" that saw it through.

"Now we're starting to see the fruits," Mr Helms said.

"Not of financial success, but the fruits of success that an Indigenous corporation like ourselves could be an integral part of this actually happening in the NT.

"I think that's a key to the tenacity of the Gumatj people – to take something like this on and stick through it."

There’s hopes a new Australian spaceport will inspire young people to work in the space industry. (Supplied: NASA/Tony Gray and Tim Powers)

With the countdown to the space centre's first launch now underway, over the next two weeks, equipment and 75 NASA scientists and staff will filter into the site.

If the launches go as hoped, ELA will have managed to prove something out on the soil in Arnhem Land.

Something about darers and dreamers and that those with a vision can shoot for the stars.

ELA is already looking towards the future, and has a plan to expand the site to include more launchpads to attract more international companies, with bigger rockets.

As Dr Tucker said: "The kids growing up now thinking, 'Hey, you know, I want to build rockets, or want to send humans into space, or all the other great jobs in the space sector'.

"It is a thing in Australia – from Canberra to Perth, and now Nhulunbuy."

The Arnhem Space Centre's inaugural rocket will be launched by NASA on June 26.

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